ARS GRATIA NIHILI: THE ADVENT
The first blush of Unpressionism dawned on this writer shortly after noon on Sunday, August 19, 1979.
At the time, he was viewing an exhibition of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Suddenly, an especially intriguing
piece captured his attention. And upon closer observation, it turned out to be only the pedestal on which a work had been
displayed but from which the work, itself, had been temporarily removed.
This image stuck in his mind and on the following
day, again about noon, inspired by additional works in the Museum of Modern Art, the novel concept began to coalesce, and
he gave the newly recognized school a name: Unpressionism
In Unpressionism, unlike in other schools of art, the critic
precedes the practitioner. This writer is a non-artist, at best a thoroughly inept draftsman. Rather than describing and assessing
the work of existing artists, he set out to define and prescribe what the as yet undiscovered Unpressionist artist must do.
borrows from a classic bumper sticker for its fundamental tenet: "If Christ is the answer, what was the question?" In regarding
an Unpressionist work then, the observer must be compelled to consider, "If this is the solution, what on earth might the
problem have been?"
In a world where artists strive to make increasingly abstruse statements, the Unpressionist must
seek to make a non-statement. In fact, the Unpressionist must strive to achieve, in non-trivial existential terms to be sure,
the definitive non-solution to the ultimate non-problem.
Methodologically and philosophically, however, the Unpressionist
is confronted by major difficulties. Skipping intermediate steps, it is clear that two primary tenets of Zen Buddhism must
be satisfied in an validly Unpressionist work. The result itself must be "nothing special." And the process of its creation
must be "non-intentional." To be otherwise would be "pressionist" of one sort or another rather than genuinely Unpressionist.
satisfying the criterion "nothing special," a special difficulty arises for, indeed, any work which might succeed in achieving
"nothing special-ness" would itself, ipso facto, be something special, thereby self-defeating the entire object of the exercise.
the same token, it would appear that an infinitely non-intentional process could be achieved only through the application
of at least some modicum of "intentionality," thereby, once again, self-destructing the incipient accomplishment.
all of this it follows that perfectly authentic Unpressionism may be unattainable and that it, like so many other worthy objectives,
can only be approached asymptotically as a limit.
Unpressionism is, thus, the "closed" end of the aesthetic spectrum.
Transcending "minimal," it seeks for virtual nullity. While others seek to expand artistic horizons, Unpressionism seeks to
shrink them and, if possible, to a single, non-dimensional point: a veritable singularity.
The mathematical aspects
of the Unpressionist construct cannot be ignored. As in other aesthetics, visual and otherwise, the concept of statistical
fractals in specifying appropriate spectral densities, especially in the relationship between a work and its "package' (frame,
mat, pedestal, or what have you) applies.
But the concern here is not with the dynamics of the relationship between
figure and ground for, as should be obvious, in Unpressionism, figure and ground are totally unified. The essential tension
is between the work and its package or, more properly, between the non-work and its package or, at the extreme limit, between
the non-work and its non-package.
The variety of ways in which Unpressionism may manifest itself is only now beginning
to be explored. A signed sheet of Pastel Paper, for example, if developed in an appropriately non-intentional manner and without
"special-ness" of result might become a classic part of incipient Unpressionist "literature." The same might be true of the
same work, even if it were matted and/or framed non-intentionally and in a non-special way.
At a more serious level,
a framed "nothing" could approach classic stature. Here, one might look through a framed sheet of glass to see the inside
of the brown wrapping paper seal on the back of the frame. A series of works conceived along this line might then involve
frames of different dimensions, proportions, materials, number of sides, shape of angles, linearity, and/or curvil-inearity,
and even departure from two or even three dimensional rigor.
Again, however, the essence of all this would be in the
non-intentional creation of nothing special so that in the end an "unframed nothing" might be the epitome, but unfortunately,
the achievement of freedom from the intentional and the special is, to the extent that there is a problem at all, the problem.
in three dimensions, of course, the essence of Unpressionism is in the pedestal rather than the non-work displayed upon it.
And in exhibitions where non-works were displayed upon non-pedestals, it might be necessary to erect barriers of sorts to
prevent spectators from inadvertently running into or over the non-works. While such contact would not, in any way, damage
or modify a non-work, the non-encounter could be unnerving for the observer.
Borrowing a page from Duchamps, the notes
relating to all of this may someday be encased in a pink box since a Green Box would perforce be something very special -
and not particularly appetizing.
Others who have gone before have explored the possibility of color, form, line, texture,
and so on to the point of de minimus and ad naseum. In effect, Unpressionism gives all of that sort of thing away in order
to focus squarely and unequivocally on the package or, as the case may be, the non-package.
Thus, it may be said correctly
that Unpressionism concerns itself with the aesthetic universe beyond the surface and the edge.
Borrowing another page
from mathematics, Unpressionism can be seen as the quest for a lesser infinity as opposed to all other art forms which, in
the final analysis, reflect quests for some sort of greater infinity. The latter are all macroscopic in their focus whereas
Unpressionism is microscopic in its. While each sort of endeavor, in its own way, is equally valid, only Unpressionism holds
out the possibility, or at least the hope, for one unique, ultimate solution.
And, as is well known by those who have
troubled to reflect critically on the generally backward nature of truisms, "where there is hope, there is life." Thus, in
a real sense, Unpressionism offers a potential for revitalizing art and providing it with an authentic basis for renewed vigor.
Week: Why Derward Petfarkin's "Giraffe Getting It On with a Hippopotamus" is arguably the quintessential failed attempt to
(And The Following Week: Unpressionism in Music - pushing the envelope to transcend 20
minutes of silence.)
WHY CAN'T WE BEHAVE?
Ongoing outrages perpetrated by Muslims,
Jews, others, and - yes indeed - Christians, too, with their senseless murder of so many utterly innocent people are hard
to fathom. As always, it's difficult to accept the passing of people who are continuing to enjoy their time on this planet
while making some contribution to the well-being of others.
Lamentably, the veneer of civilization is paper thin and
easily broached. As a species, we apparently haven't been working on perfecting it for more than 70,000 years or so, and that's
a truly trivial span in the broad sweep of cosmic time and space.
Part of the problem is our now obsolete but still
compelling visceral instinct to contend about who will be the alpha male in the pack (or king on the hill or whatever). Other
animals tend to work this out in a fairly straight forward way that precludes damage to innocent bystanders. But we humans
have added a whole new dimension to this turmoil. Our struggle now is not merely to determine who is the Darwinian "fittest"
but also to confirm who is the theologically and/or philosophically "rightest" without regard to fitness.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, and what have yous are all absolutely certain they are right and good while everyone else is wrong
and evil. Similarly hordes of people are utterly convinced democracy is not merely the best way but the only right and good
way to organize society and every other way is wrong and evil.
For many of us, "live and let live" is worthy only of
lip service as we continue to militate for everyone else to think like us, be like us, and do like us.
helps humankind in transcending the "base" instincts of lesser animals but, as it turns out, religions actually exacerbate
the problem by escalating it to a still higher and more dreadful level.
Think for a moment what conditions in the Middle
East would be like if nobody had ever invented Judaism or Christianity or Islam. We might still be at each others' throats,
but at least the issues would be pragmatic - access to breathable air, drinkable water, edible food, and other resources essential
to well being here and now rather than esoteric stuff like - how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.
the world's religious mythologies arose out of pre-scientific ignorance which still pervades most of the world's population.
And the kind of knowledge that might someday support truly collaborative rather than contentious behavior has only just begun
to emerge - more of it in the last 100 years than in the previous 70,000 - and we have only scratched the surface of true
understanding. I'm very doubtful any of us alive today or our great-grandchildren (or their great-grandchildren) will survive
to see a more rational outcome. Shakespeare's Puck was spot on:
"What fools these mortals be!"
recognizing Ebonics as a primary language, Oakland’s school board made one of the most constructive and potentially far-reaching
educational and cultural decisions of the 20th century.
This decision paves the way for African American children to
finally and fully enter the mainstream of American life. Their lack of fluency in standard English has been the principal
impediment to true equality of opportunity, and the failure of our educational establishment, and our society generally, to
acknowledge the legitimacy of Ebonics has been the principal impediment to literacy for African American children.
Oakland approach will work, and that fact will quickly become apparent. Many other school systems will then follow suit,
and the cumulative impact will finally be the social revolution which has eluded us for decades despite myriad well-intentioned
legislative initiatives and mechanistic strictures.
The most profound and immediate effect of the board’s decision
will be a dramatic improvement in reading ability beginning at lower elementary level. With that foundation in place, academic
performance in all subject areas will subsequently improve.
Already, African Americans who speak standard English can
move relatively easily in the mainstream of America. When the vast majority of African Americans come to speak standard American,
as a group, its members will no longer be perceived as inferior, and de facto segregation will finally and truly wither away.
a white point of view, the thing that actually sets African Americans apart as inferior has little to do with the color of
their skin, their history, their beliefs, their behaviors, or their economic status. But it does have everything to do with
the way they speak, and this is not, in fact, a racially discriminatory bias.
In America, people of all colors tend
to be perceived as inferior unless they speak standard English without an accent, and this phenomenon is not unique to America.
Regardless of skin color, the English perceive people who don’t speak standard British English as “right wallies”, and the
French perceive people who don’t speak standard European French as absolute “cretins.” This reality may not be fundamental
to the human condition, but it is universal.
The validity of the Oakland decision was demonstrated clearly in Milwaukee
over three decades ago.
A woman who had taught first grade in an affluent, private, suburban school for over 20 years
was forced by the rules to retire at age 65. Not ready to quit, she discovered the Milwaukee Public School system permitted
working until age 70, and she applied there for a job.
At first she was told there might be occasional substitute assignments,
but no regular full time position. But when she said she had hoped to round out her career by teaching in an inner city school,
she was promptly placed.
All the other teachers and administrators in her new school were black. So were all the children
except two white girls, who spoke Canadian French, in the teacher’s first grade class of 38. Without even an aide to assist
in maintaining order, chaos in the classroom, the coatroom, the halls and on the playground was rife.
The Black principal
was sympathetic but unhelpful. “If you can just keep them from killing each other before you pass them along to second grade,
you can consider yourself a success.”
That view was echoed by the teacher’s colleagues who said, “Don’t try to fight
it. We can’t teach them to read, and neither can you.”
By Thanksgiving, the teacher’s level of professional frustration
had peaked. Firmly convinced of the truth that “nothing has been taught until something has been learned,” she seriously
considered resigning. Then she realized that something might be salvaged after all.
Although her French was very rusty,
she had studied it in college. And while the version of French spoken by the little girls was very different, there were
similarities. Perhaps she could communicate with them sufficiently to teach them English.
So, on Monday after Thanksgiving,
1966, the teacher took the two French children aside, ignored the din around them, and began teaching them English as their
The teacher had never been taught how to teach language, so she began intuitively to work on vocabulary.
The drill was simple enough: “At home you say ‘chien,’ but here at school we say ‘dog.’ Neither is right or wrong. They’re
just two different ways of saying the same thing.”
Soon, some of the other children began hanging around the tutorial
sessions and listening in. Then one day, a black child ventured, in thick Ebonics, “Yo mean, lahk, tuh home Ah say, ‘Ah be’
but heah tuh school Ah shud say, ‘I am.’” It was an epiphany.
In an instant, the truth became clear. The teacher’s
own children had friends who spoke languages other than English at home. Ned LaPresti spoke Italian. Danny Makowski who
lived just across the alley spoke Polish. Mark Follstad spoke Norwegian. Max Eisen spoke Yiddish. And Sylvia Moldenhauer
Although their parents were not in the mainstream of America, those children were. They read. They did
well in school, and largely because they spoke standard English, as their second language.
Many years later, the teacher’s
own great-grandchildren, whose mother was Mexican, would be able to speak Spanish with their cousins and standard English
elsewhere, and neither with a “foreign” accent.
But what was the secret of their success? Why had they been able to
master standard English as a second language and most of the black children had not?
The answer was pride. Those children,
and their parents, could be proud of having two languages, not just one. No one had ever considered the possibility that
Polish or French or German or Norwegian or Spanish were inferior versions of English. Everyone knew they were simply different
and, although different, entirely okay.
For black children, treatment of Ebonics as an inferior variety of English
in need of correction erected an insurmountable psychological barrier to learning standard English.
It was really just
that simple. Once the need to defend Ebonics as “okay” was laid to rest by acknowledging that it is “okay,” learning another
language (different, but not better) could go forward. And having learned to speak the different language, learning to read
it also became, finally, not merely easier, but possible.
Before long, all the children in the teacher’s class got
caught up in learning to speak the new language, standard English.
As they began to experience success instead of frustration,
their motivation, attention span, and behavior improved dramatically. And, in turn, those improvements fostered further success,
growth, and improvement.
Soon, all the children also began to read standard English. The symbols on the printed page
now correlated in a systematic way with the sounds of the new words they were learning to speak. It all finally made sense.
time, as the children learned standard English, the teacher herself began to pick up Ebonics. Eventually, she, too, spoke
both languages, and that made teaching standard English even easier. The teacher’s fluency in Ebonics wiped away the last
vestiges of the old psychological barrier.
Just before Easter, the mother of one of the children came to school for
a parent-teacher conference. In it, she told the teacher, “Ah wants tuh thank you for teachin' mah chil' tuh read. Now he
bin teachin' his older brothers and sisters tuh read, too.” Then she added, with tears in her eyes, “He bin teachin' all
of us tuh read.”
At the end of the school year, the standardized tests used throughout the school system disclosed
that all 37 children who remained in the teacher’s class were reading at, or above, grade level, and one was even reading
as well as a fourth grader.
Rather than rejoicing in this breakthrough, however, educrats in the superintendent’s office
were incredulous. Because they did not believe black children could actually be taught to read, they concluded the test results
must have been rigged.
The teacher was put on probation. People from the superintendent’s office came to the school
and administered new tests. When the results came out the same, the children were required to read aloud to auditors from
books they had never previously even seen, and the results were still the same.
Without reservations or qualifications,
these children could actually read.
Rather than seizing upon what the teacher had discovered and extending her technique
to other classrooms in other schools, educrats in the superintendent’s office finally decided to attribute the success of
her class to some kind of fluke.
And they were unfazed when her children were able to achieve similar success year
after year thereafter. The teacher’s approach did not accord with conventional wisdom and even bordered on being politically
Administrators and educational traditionalists perceived the teacher's discovery as a dangerous pedagogical
heresy which threatened their comfortable, self-validated, self-serving, knee-jerk world view. As such, it was to be systematically
ignored and then preferably buried as deeply and quickly as possible.
The teacher taught for another five years until,
once again, the rules required her to retire because of her age. In spite of chronic resistance from the superintendent’s
office and obstacles put in her way by its educrat staff, she continued to teach black children to read by first teaching
them standard English as a second language.
And from her teaching colleagues, she was able to learn of the children’s
subsequent success in all their studies as they were truly promoted, not merely “passed along,” from grade to grade.
retrospect, what the teacher discovered accidentally 35 years ago now seems obvious, at least to the Oakland school board
to its enormous credit.
The written word is merely an emulation of spoken language. That’s why the misguided notion
reading could be taught without phonics proved so utterly, and predictably, disastrous for the young victims of that educrat
By analogy, the written word serves the real world in the same way a disk drive serves a computer, and the spoken
word is the real world’s medium of input, output, and process.
In both computer and real world, unless the two forms
of words correlate closely, the result is gibberish.
It would never occur to anyone that a child who spoke only Chinese
could be taught to read English without learning to speak English first. Why, one wonders, has it taken so long for our educational
establishment to realize that a child who speaks only Ebonics can’t be expected to read standard English without learning
to speak standard English first?
The teacher saw that truth 35 years ago. I know because I knew her. She was my Mother.
PEDOPHILIA AND OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE
Paranoia is rife among Catholic clergy. Many priests feel the media tarnish all
for the transgressions of a few. But a rare barrel has no bad apples, and rarely do scattered blemishes spoil the lot. Most
people see this analogy.
Priestly abuse is deplorable. More deplorable is prelate tolerance, implicitly resurrecting
"benefit of clergy" whereby clerical transgressions are exclusively the province of Church and no business of civil authority.
involves both sin and crime. Hierarchical error focuses on sin and absolution to exclusion of crime and punishment. The issue
with Boston's Archbishop Law's shouldn't have been his resignation. It should have been his indictment for obstructing justice.
Pontiff now wrongly requires that abuse allegations be reported confidentially to Rome. He should also require that they be
reported to local District Attorneys.
Merely "redeeming" clerical miscreants won't dispel suspicion of hierarchical
complicity. That will require civil justice as well. The Church may claim exclusive jurisdiction over sin but criminal matters
must be "rendered unto Caesar."